Trans-normativity

Though this is not necessarily a term that has been utilized within our texts, there is a trend in the papers where authors—and especially Stryker—need to argue a point in which transgender as a category is not a homogenous category; and that the hegemonic patriarchal discourse on gender flattens the experiences (as it tends to flatten any experience of a marginalized group) of transgender people.  Utilizing Susan Stryker’s definition of transgender as the foundation for contemporary studies and theories within the field, transgender should be understood as the movement a person makes from an un-chosen position that surpasses socially imposed boundaries. With that in mind, transgender as a category has been essentialized by nation-states and popular culture in a way that only allows for one way to exist as transgender. This ideology of transnormativity is perpetuated within the patriarchal nation-state through institutions such as: academia, politics, communities, social services, media, and medicine. Understanding transgender as a diverse category based on movement and fighting this form of transnormativity is important because as this field of study picks up momentum it is vital that transgender doesn’t get washed over, “understood”, and then placed back in a marginal space.

In one way to see how transnormativity has been problematic is by looking at David Valentine’s 2007 text, I Know What I Am: Gender, Sexuality, and Identity.  Throughout Valentine’s ethnographic field work as providing health social services to transgender sex workers in the Meat Market of New York, he struggles to thoroughly provide health because of his confusions on understanding a transgender person’s variable and seemingly contradictory sex and gender identities. First, health services (a faction of the institution of medicine) normalize transgender as they instructed Valentine to help people who are easily identified or self identified as transgender. This kind of “passing” for transgender works within the sex-gender binary as it assumes that 1. Sexed bodies are easily distinguishable through their “natural” traits (secondary traits such as muscle mass or facial hair) and 2. Because of these “natural” traits, it is easy to tell when one body is performing the “opposite” gender. This assumption therefore makes the person who is trying to identify someone who is transgender as looking for a person who seems “unnatural”—which doesn’t seem like a positive way to help the community. And any other identity that does not make a linear connection from one sex body to another gender becomes invisible to health services. Because of this act of transnormativity, Valentine has difficulties understanding how the transgender people he interviewed when they would simultaneously identify as “butch lesbian”, “hard daddy”, and expressing previous desires to have Gender Confirmation Surgery.

But what Valentine does understand is that these categories are socially constructed and highly influenced by race and class and that the medical/social service definitions of transgender are sponsored by the power structures that tries to flatten the transgender category so that it cannot challenge the patriarchy. Nation-states form and define identities that essentialize groups of marginalized people. Such a case is discussed in Evan B. Towle and Morgan M. Lynn’s 2002 text Romancing the Transgender Native: Rethinking the Use of the ‘Third Gender’ Concept. Here they show how the institution of academia and its use of cross-cultural analysis have only allowed one gender variance per culture. The category of transgender is not only being homogenized, but it is once again being situated within the same gender-binary system because “third gender” is existing as just an add-on to the pre-existing gender model. By doing so, academia (which is influenced by the greater patriarchal society) is influencing dominant discourses, and further perpetuating the patriarchal heteronormative system instead of challenging it.

In both of these examples we can see how the construction of transnormativity is dependent on who is producing the knowledge. Obviously greater social structures that have pre-existing power are producing, but we can look at how globally there tends to be the West that reaches out, names, and homogenizes transgender identities. And also within our own nation’s borders or within organizations that want to support transgender communities, there is a normative way to look at transgender that does little to disturb the gender-binary system that keeps the patriarchy intact.

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One thought on “Trans-normativity

  1. I chose this post to reply to because I also found that several readings aim to challenge or explain transnormativity. Similar to the ways that homosexuality is regularly normalized (homonormativity) through gender and sexual norms, transnormativity does not challenge the gender binary but enforces it. The consequences of reducing transgender identities and bodies to a heteronormative essentialized view through outlets such as academia are, as you mention, that academics can claim to “understand” transgender identities. Whether academics identify as transgender themselves or not, I agree that it is vital to see transgender a constant process or movement through space in order to fight normative notions that feed violent acts against transgender individuals.
    To add a connection to our readings, you talk about the sex-gender binary and how “This assumption therefore makes the person who is trying to identify someone who is transgender as looking for a person who seems “unnatural”—which doesn’t seem like a positive way to help the community.” In Talia Mae Bettcher’s piece that we read this week, Bettcher claims that no matter what one identities (male, queer, transgender, etc), our society relates gender presentation to genital representation. She argues that everyone declares their genital status everyday by the clothes that they wear or other external factors. According to Bettcher, assumptions about our sex and gender are made no matter what. So, basically transgender individuals no matter if they “pass” or not will always be seen as fake and hold “false representation.” I think that if we lived in a society that did not enforce the sex-gender binary, then understanding transgender as a movement through space could be easier. Additionally, it could help prevent many types of violences against transgender individuals such as misgendering, gender enforcement or objectification just to name a few. When mainstream media focuses on the genitals and/or bodies of transgender individuals (such as in the Katie Couric show), transgender is understood as having a finish line and thus fails to see gender as always fluid and changing.

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